Barbel Fishing in Spain - Ode to an Unsung Species
Ken Morrish May 05, 2023
If there is such a thing as an open-minded fly angler, I like to consider myself one. I am genuinely committed to pursuing fish with fly tackle, and I will give almost any methods a college try to see if they work and, more importantly, if they make me happy in my pursuit of fish. Likewise, I am open to virtually all species, as ultimately, I find catching fish fun, irrespective of their pedigree. I struggle with fellow fly anglers' aversion to carp, for example. They are big, numerous, crafty, and they pull hard. Moreover, they are survivors that can provide great sport for thousands of anglers in a rapidly changing world. Granted, the shape of their mouth is a little off-putting at first, but that is their lot in life and not their fault.
Carp are part of the Cyprinidae family, as are masheer and barbel. Barbel are part of the Barbus genus, and their name is derived from the Latin word barba, meaning beard, which refers to their long pairs of barbles extending from the sides of their mouths. While they are very carp-like, they are also more elegant, streamlined, salmonid-shaped fish than carp, and they are great species to target with flies. There are many species of barbel, and they are found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The Mediterranean barbel is the only species I have fished for, while my partner Brian has also fished for a species in South Africa and Lesotho that are referred to locally as yellow fish. When planning my hosted trip to Spain with our outfitting partner Salvelinus, I wanted to go at a time when I could target barbel in addition to trout. Broadly speaking, that period is from mid-May through September. During these months, they can be targeted as they cruise near the shoreline on numerous impoundments, but the main attraction is sight fishing for them as they migrate out of lake systems into their feeder rivers.
One of the great appeals of fishing for them is that they tend to be numerous, and the hours fly by because of the target-rich environment. After a warm-up session one afternoon on a lake near the lodge, we headed out for a full day of barbel fishing to the lower reaches of a clear freestone river feeding a large reservoir. Driving in, we looked off a bridge into an arm of the reservoir and spotted lots of fish, some sporadically feeding on the surface. I was excited to see so many fish, but it did not prepare me for how many fish were in the river.
My fishing partner John headed upstream with our guide Ivan, and I stayed behind to fish on my own and walked downstream to the first broad, shallow tailout. Immediately, I saw dorsal fins and tails gently breaking the surface. The longer I looked, the more fish I saw. The fish were holding in very shallow water, and there were multiple singles, doubles, and triples within easy casting range. Game on!
There are four preferred tactics for enticing the barbel in Spain. The first and most popular is what I call "beetle slapping." This entails casting black beetle patterns in sizes #8-10, as well as flies like smaller Fat Alberts, six inches in front of the holding fish. What is curious about the method is that the angler strives to have the fly land with a hard splatting sound to jar the fish into action. It is a rather low-percentage game, but since there are so many targets, it is also a fun, active form of fishing. In 15 minutes, I had landed my first and pulled the fly away from a second fish, and I was sold on the species. Once hooked, barbel are strong fighters, and in the shallow water, they run hard. The second method is to fish small weighted algae flies, as this is one of their primary food sources. The third method is to fish for them just like trout when there is a hatch, and they are actively surface feeding. And the last method is to target them dead-drifting crayfish patterns, because when they get over five pounds, they spend more time feeding on dead crayfish and baitfish. But I stuck with the beetle because it was working, and dry fly takes at close range are too much fun.
That day I made a lot of casts to well-over 100 sighted fish. I landed seven, missed another five, and lost four. The largest was 26 inches and took me into my backing twice. I also took an hour to target carp that were cruising over a sandy bay. I caught one on a dry, then switched to more bonefish-like wet-fly tactics to hook two others. They were very strong but not nearly as handsome as the barbel.
One of the interesting takeaways is that these fish are easy to target as they love shallow tailouts, shorelines, and riffles as opposed to deeper waters where they would be hard to see. Because they are easily spotted in shallow water and they make long, strong runs, they are often referred to freshwater bonefish. They also inhabit rivers where large trout can be targeted in the heavier water and foam lines. Lastly, the barbel in Spain are a great fish to target in the summer months when the mid-land and low-land trout are often less active. In fishing with Salvelinus, it is easy to spend summer mornings fishing trout when the air and water temps are cool, and then put on the sun gear and really get after the barbel in the afternoons. I am a covert and a fan of these fish and would encourage others to give them a try when the opportunity presents itself.